Workplace Communication: When in Doubt …

Uplift Industries was a small marketing firm in Chicago dedicated to furthering the missions of local businesses. The team comprised a Chief Marketing Officer, Phyllis; a Marketing Manager, Laura; and the Marketing Assistant, Simone. The workload and pace of their clients’ campaigns made collaboration key and communication critical. Having worked together for a couple of years and being mutually invested in the achievement of their firm, they considered one another friends and had a basic understanding of each other’s mindsets.

Still, there were times when team dynamics or project situations gave rise to uncertainty or conflict. Given their mix of passive and assertive personalities, this resulted in experiences of rejection, frustration, and/or anxiety. These feelings were rarely shared with one another, as no one wanted to “rock the boat.”

Business had picked up, and they were pleasantly and overwhelmingly busy. Phyllis decided to assign Simone, the assistant, with a large project- a radio advertisement for the Park District. Later that week, when Simone reported on her progress at a Team Meeting, Laura, the manager, appeared visibly upset; her face had become flushed and she quickly went through her section of the agenda with quivering emotion in her voice.

Often, Simone and Laura would meet after the Team Meeting to debrief and check in with one another. This time, Laura went immediately to her office, dimmed the lights, and locked the door behind her. Simone began to worry:

  • Did she think my pitch was terrible? Did something I said offend her?
  • Was she upset that the Park District project was assigned to me?
  • Is she jealous that the Park District project was assigned to me?
  • Why can’t she be supportive of this opportunity for me? There’s plenty of work to go around.

Laura’s standoffish behavior lasted throughout the week, and Simone tortured herself trying to figure out what she had done wrong. Finally, on Friday afternoon, she decided to confront the situation and knocked on the door.

Simone: Hi Phyllis. Do you have a minute to talk?

Laura: Yes, of course, please come in. What is it?

Simone: I was wondering if there was anything about our Team Meeting that was upsetting to you? I noticed you were quieter than usual. What are your thoughts about my taking on the Park District project?

Laura: Oh my gosh, I’m sorry. I struggle with migraines – a bad one came on during that meeting. When that happens, I have to dim the lights and be in silence. If you ever notice that I’m shutting my door, please feel free to knock and come in.

Simone: Oh, I’m so glad I asked. I’m sorry you’ve been feeling so poorly!

Laura: Yeah, and since you mentioned it, Phyllis did ask me to start on the Park District project a couple of weeks ago. I had not quite gotten to it. It seems like a duplication of efforts and I am confused about why she would ask both of us to work on it.

Simone: Can we both go talk to Phyllis now to see why or how that happened, and to figure out an effective system for communicating who is going to be doing what from now on? 

As it turned out, Phyllis had completely forgotten that she had already assigned the project to Laura first. She was relieved that her team came to speak with her directly, together, instead of harboring resentment or theorizing without her input.

All three left the office on Friday ready for the weekend – so glad that “when in doubt, they checked it out.”

Try this: Make note of the next time you make an assumption. Could there be another explanation? Challenge yourself to approach the other person and ask questions to clarify the situation. You may be surprised to learn the full story!

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